George R.R. Martin Explains Why Killing Beloved Characters Is so Important

George R. R. Martin
George R. R. Martin / Amy Sussman/GettyImages

Game of Thrones was famous for a lot of things, but killing off beloved characters has to be near the top of the list. From Ned Stark to Stannis Baratheon to Daenerys Targaryen, no character was safe. The shock audiences felt while watching these characters get bumped off is a sign of how few shows are actually willing to go there, but franchise creator George R.R. Martin has always made this a part of his storytelling.

As Martin explained to The Independent, his distaste for low-stakes storytelling started back in his childhood, when he was unsatisfied with the superhero comics he was reading. “The stories never went anywhere,” the author said. “Superman would be there, and his girlfriend Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen his best friend, Perry White the editor of the Daily Planet, and something would happen. At the end of the story, everything would be exactly the way it was at the beginning of the story, for issue after issue, year after year.”

But then Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and others started to publish stories at Marvel and everything changed. “Stan Lee’s writing was so much better than what you’d been getting,” Martin recalled. “Things happened. Spider-Man was progressing. It was so refreshing.” In the interview, Martin mentioned a specific comic—Avengers #9—which introduced the villain-turned-hero Wonder Man, who was unexpectedly killed by the end of the story.

"That’s all Stan Lee, and you can see it all over my work," Martin said. "Unexpectedly killing characters, characters who are not what they seem, characters who are partly good and partly bad. Grey characters. You don’t know which way they’re going to jump when the moment of crisis comes. Stan Lee’s fingerprints are all over that."

Of course, the most famous instance where Martin brutally kills off characters is in the Red Wedding, where both Robb and Catelyn Stark are unexpectedly cleared from the board after we’d been following them for three books (or three seasons, if you’re talking about the TV show.) “I finished the entire book, except for the Red Wedding,” Martin recalled about writing A Storm of Swords. “That was such a painful chapter for me to write, losing some characters that I had come to know and love. Nine years I’d been with these characters, and now I was going to kill them horribly! That was difficult.”

The author continued, saying, "It’s a horrible chapter, and it upsets people. It makes people angry, it makes people sad. People throw the book against the wall or into the fireplace. When it was on TV, it had the same effect on tens of thousands, if not millions, of people. To my mind, that’s good. We’re talking about death here!"

That said, Martin does think his reputation as a fictional mass murderer has been exaggerated. “Star Wars kills more characters than I do!” he said. “In the very first Star Wars movie they blow up the entire planet of Alderaan, which has, like, 20 billion people on it, and they’re all dead. But you know what? Nobody cares. Everybody on Alderaan is dead. Oh, OK. But we don’t know the people on Alderaan. We don’t feel their deaths. It’s just a statistic. If you’re going to write about death, you should feel it.”